Create Your Own Snow Leopard USB Installation Drive

by Matt

When Apple announced its new MacBook Air models, many people were excited to see that the company replaced the restore DVDs with a USB Jump Drive. Installing Mac OS X Snow Leopard from a USB is fast, easy, and more reliable, compared to a DVD. Your computer can read the data from a USB drive significantly faster than from a DVD, and there’s no risk of scratching like there is with an optical disk. This guide will teach you how to make a USB installation drive from your Mac OS X Snow Leopard installation disc.

Hardware and Software Requirements

In order to complete this guide, you will need the following:

  1. A USB flash drive at least 8 GB in size.
  2. A retail copy of Mac OS X Snow Leopard.
  3. A Mac running OS 10.4.11 or later.

This guide will only work with genuine Mac computers, not Hackintoshes. If your genuine Mac originally came with a version of Mac OS X greater than 10.6 (such as 10.6.1, 10.6.2, etc.), a retail Snow Leopard disc may not work for you. Instead, you may need to use the restore disc that came with your computer (and you may need a larger USB drive, depending on the size of the restore DVD). Please note, however, that as of today’s date, Apple is shipping retail versions of Mac OS X with version 10.6.3 on the discs. System admins: take note that restore discs will not allow you to install the operating system onto machine models different from the one the restore disc came with.

Preparing the USB Installation Drive

  1. Insert your Mac OS X Snow Leopard installation disc into your computer.
  2. Connect the USB flash drive to a USB port on your computer.
  3. Open Disk Utility (in /Applications/Utilities folder).
  4. Select the USB drive in the list of disks on the left pane of the Disk Utility window. Make sure you select the disk drive itself (which has listed its GB size), NOT the name of the flash drive.

    You need to partition the USB drive before restoring it.

  5. Select the Partition tab and then press the Optionsbutton.

    Make sure you select the GUID Partition Table

  6. Select GUID Partition Table and press OK.

Now we are going to finish changing the settings for the new partition:

  1. Under Volume Scheme, make sure “1 Partition” is selected (which it will be by default).
  2. In the Name field, title your USB Drive. Something like “Snow Leopard,” “Mac OS X,” or “10.6 Install” makes sense.
  3. In the Format pop-up menu, select “Mac OS X Extended (Journaled).”
  4. Finally, click “Apply” to partition your USB drive.

When you click “Apply,” Disk Utility will completely erase your flash drive.

Copying the Install Data to the USB Drive

Now that you have a properly formatted USB drive, you can copy the installation data from the Mac OS X Install DVD to the USB drive. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Restore tab at the top of the Disk Utility window (in the same line as Partition).
  2. In this tab, there are two fields: the Source field and the Destination field. The Source field is for the drive we are coping data from, and the Destination field is for the drive we are copying data to.
  3. Drag the USB drive icon to the Destination field and drag the Mac OS X Install DVD icon to the Source field.
  4. Ensure that the “Erase destination” button is checked.
  5. Now click “Restore.”

Disk Utility will now copy the contents of the DVD to your USB drive. This will take a while. When the transfer is complete, you can quit Disk Utility and eject the DVD.

Installing Mac OS X from the USB Drive

Now that you have a working USB installation drive, you can test it out with your Mac. The key here is that you CANNOT install Mac OS X from the Finder. You must boot your computer from the USB drive. To do this:

  1. Turn your computer off.
  2. Connect the USB drive to the computer (if it is not already connected).
  3. Hold down the Option Key on your computer’s keyboard and, while holding it down, turn the computer on.
  4. Continue holding the Option Key until you see icons on the gray screen. These icons represent bootable disks for your computer. You should see the name of the USB drive that you created. Select that drive and press the right arrow to continue booting your computer.

Your computer will then boot from the USB drive and you can install Mac OS X without the need for a DVD!

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James October 25, 2010 at 2:10 am

You can take this a step further with a portable hard drive.
Create any number of partitions and have different os versions/installers on the 1 disk.
Saves a huge amount of time over optical media. I personally have SL, Leopard and SL server installers with me at all times on the 1 drive.
It is also possible to have this work to install on PPC machines. (Tiger/Leopard only of course)

Also as a tip to make it all look nice, copy and paste the icon from the apple media onto your partitions and you get the full apple large icons at the boot picker screen.

2 Pete Theo December 20, 2010 at 9:24 am

How about a way to install snow leopard & iLife in one go just like apples USB stick supplied with new MacBook Air’s.

3 soudokou June 15, 2011 at 12:59 am

Hy everyone, is it possible to do an usb external hard drive with mac os x, and windows partitions to boot on it, and install os .

4 jj July 13, 2011 at 7:19 pm

i have done all of this and works perfectly. however, how do you change the usb back to use like normal again? the disk utility wont let me erase it? thanks in advance

5 garreth August 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Hi. I followed your directions and everything seemed to go well until the install part. On my MacBook pro the computer doesn’t give me the option to choose the USB drive as a boot disk, only the normal harddrive.
If I plug the drive in once it does it’s normal start-up, then it just says ” disk insertion the disk you inserted was not readable by this computer” and it gives me options to initialize, ignore or eject the disk. Any ideas here would be a great help. My optical drive died and I don’t want to have to replace it. Thanks a lot!

6 fred jones August 21, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Of course it also works with Hackintoshes

7 Hitesh September 12, 2012 at 2:42 pm

i think u can simply use a PC to do that

8 Anne Billson September 13, 2012 at 3:53 am

Just to thank you for these instructions, which are some of the clearest and most comprehensible I have ever come across in a field where I am often faced with what seems to me to be utter gibberish, only to be understood by people with a PhD in Computer Science. Much appreciated.

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